The day after the Euro 2021 final was a sombre one. Pupils arrived at school a little sad after England's loss and with a lot of questions and queries around penalties, football and the match in general.
I quickly realised that before we could start with the actual business of my planned lessons, I needed to give my pupils five minutes to ask me any questions they had. And these questions wildly varied from rules, to scoring, to the in-game tactics.
How hard can it be?
Then one pupil asked the sort of question only a child in Year 4 can ask: “How did Rashford miss? Penalties are easy!”
Rather than give him an answer, I instead asked why he thought this.
“You just put the ball in the back of the net!”
Nods and murmurs of agreement rippled across the class; I could see they were struggling to empathise with the penalty takers. I made a decision.
I told the class because our year group was having a picnic on the field that morning, it was the perfect time to get the football out. Since they think penalties are easy, how about we all take some penalties with me in goal and see how many we score?
They responded with confidence. It was settled; a penalty shoot-out with me, their class teacher, in goal.
Learning through experiences
I saw this as a great opportunity for my class to learn through experience. I could have just told them that penalties are difficult, but this would not have helped them to understand why they are difficult. In taking the position that Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho had, my pupils would have the chance to be active participants in discovering knowledge.
As we went outside onto our school field, I made sure the penalty spot was the same distance from the goal line on a standard 11-a-side pitch. This prompted pupils to start asking questions: “Isn’t this too far away?"
I reassured them that it was the same distance the England team had been taking their penalties from. This wobble wasn't enough to put them off – pupils were still up for the challenge and raring to go.
The more confident pupils moved to the front of the line itching to take their shot. After watching me save the first, second, third, fourth and fifth, all the pupils started to understand why this was a lot more difficult than it seemed.
Bravery in spades
The mood changed. All of the students began to rethink their previous assertions. Perhaps penalties were harder than they looked.
The experience facilitated learning at a much deeper level than me just saying it is difficult. Pupils realised that there was actually a list of variables more complex than just “putting the ball in the back of the net.”.
The reality hit home: they had to think about their run-up, which way to stand, what part of their foot they were going to kick the ball as well as trying to score.
In total, the class took 23 penalties and ended up scoring a grand total of one. The pupil who scored fired the ball right into the top left-hand corner and it went in off the post – I had absolutely no chance! This led to lots of cheering and pats on the back for that pupil and rightly so, it was very well taken.
But the lesson learned wasn't just footballing skills. The experience gave us the opportunity to link the situation to the concept of responsibility. I explained that Rashford, Sancho and Saka were very brave and courageous to take a penalty, and for that, they should be commended.
Omari Barton-Ellington teaches Year 4 at The Devonshire Hill Nursery and Primary School in Haringey